Wisden Obituary

Graham Cowdrey

COWDREY, THE HON. GRAHAM ROBERT, died of sepsis on November 10, aged 56.

For Graham Cowdrey, there was little point trying to emulate his father's flowing cover-drives or coaching-manual defence. Instead, he hit the ball hard, and often. In full cry, he could leave an attack in ruins. "Graham realised his destiny in life was not to try and play classically and with finesse, but simply to belt the daylights out of every loose ball that came his way," said his friend and Kent team-mate Aravinda de Silva. Cowdrey acknowledged his name could be a burden. "I might have played for England if I'd been Graham Smith and not Graham son-of-Colin Cowdrey," he said. But he also recognised his limitations: "I had the talent, I think, to be a top player, a really top player, but mentally I wasn't quite there."

Nevertheless, for a decade from the mid-1980s, he was one of the mainstays of an enterprising Kent side. He passed 1,000 runs for three successive seasons from 1990, averaging over 50 in 1992. In a different era, his explosive one-day batting might have earned international recognition. His brother Chris recalled a 76-ball Sunday League century against Leicestershire on a stodgy pitch at Folkestone in 1989, and an unbroken ten-over partnership of 115 in another Sunday game at Northampton the following year. "I thought I was playing quite well, but at the other end the ball kept disappearing. I remember one shot that went high up into the old football floodlights - the Northamptonshire players had never seen the ball hit that far." Chris felt he would have been an outstanding T20 batsman. "He was the most devastating striker of the ball, who could turn a game in three overs."

But it was not just his batting, or superb fielding in the covers, that earned his team-mates' affection. Although private and not a big drinker, he was often the hub of dressing-room humour. "He could take over a day or an evening in the life of a team, and make it entirely his own," wrote Ed Smith, now the national selector. "Impressions of team-mates, re-enactments of funny moments from the field, uncanny mimicry - when the force was with him he was irresistibly funny." Another master of the art, the comedian Rory Bremner, made Cowdrey his best man: "He made me laugh more than anybody I have ever met."

He was also known for his love of the arts and devotion to the singer/songwriter Van Morrison: he saw him live more than 250 times. Sometimes Morrison would peer into the audience between songs, and ask: "Is Graham here?" They became friends, and Cowdrey acted as his driver on one tour. "I was in groupie heaven," he said. On his death, Morrison sent a letter of condolence.

The youngest of Colin's four children, Graham played for Young England against Australia in 1983, along with Neil Fairbrother, Hugh Morris, Steve Rhodes and Peter Such. "He's only here because he's a bloody Cowdrey," he heard a spectator say after a second cheap dismissal. Next season came his debut for Kent, and he had a short run in the first team in 1985, hitting a maiden fifty against the Australians at Canterbury. Another followed swiftly against Worcestershire, but his first hundred did not arrive until 1988, when Kent finished second in the Championship. They were runners-up again in 1992, but their main strength lay in the one-day competitions.

Cowdrey had made an early impact in the Benson and Hedges Cup in 1986, scoring an unbeaten 60 at Southampton to earn the match award. "He looks to have a lot of talent and his father's temperament," said adjudicator Len Hutton. In the final against Middlesex, he top-scored with 58, but narrowly failed to steer Kent to victory. They also lost B&H finals to Hampshire in 1992, Lancashire in 1995 and Surrey in 1997, and were Sunday League runners-up in 1993 and 1997. They shed the bridesmaid's tag to win the title on run-rate in 1995, Cowdrey leading their batting with 593 runs at 53, but the lack of reward for the team's potential was a lasting regret. "For a long time, we were the favourites for the one-day tournaments every year," he said. "We could have won four or five trophies."

He was introduced to cricket in a net at the family home in Limpsfield, Surrey, and attended Wellesley House prep school before moving on to Tonbridge, where his father and brothers had been educated. He felt under pressure to follow the family tradition, and join Kent. "A schedule was laid out for me, and I had arguments with masters at Tonbridge," he recalled in Ivo Tennant's book The Cowdreys. He went to Durham University to read general arts, but left after a year when he failed an anthropology exam. He opted for cricket, though not without equivocation: "I was questioning myself as to whether it was my decision, or made by other people."

In 1987, he missed most of the season after Michael Holding broke his jaw at Derby. "I was never quite the same," he said. "I never really pulled or hooked after that." Yet his most prolific seasons lay ahead, and he relished batting with de Silva in 1995. Against Derbyshire at Maidstone, they put on 368, then a Kent record for any wicket, and still their highest for the fourth.

As early as 1986, he had been grumbling about the county treadmill, and did not enjoy aspects of the team environment. Nor did he welcome the increased emphasis on fitness in the 1990s. Passing Smith on the dressing-room stairs during one pre-season, he asked: "Could you just pop over to the outfield and check the fitness trainers have left? If they're still here, I'll be in the loos." He retired in 1998, soon after a depressing Second XI match at Taunton. "I played and missed a dozen times when this young pup in the slips says: 'Jeez, I think we'd better tie a bell on it for the old codger.' I should have been annoyed, but he was right."

Cowdrey married the amateur jockey Maxine Juster, who became assistant to his stepmother, the trainer Lady Herries. After cricket, he worked in corporate hospitality for spread-betting companies, and set up a fundraising silent-auction business. But when that - and his marriage - failed, he lived a hand-to-mouth existence, sofa-surfing and sometimes sleeping in his car. He was welcomed back into cricket in 2015, when he became an ECB liaison officer, a role he enjoyed, and continued to fulfil during the shortened 2020 season. During the spring lockdown, he had worked as an Amazon delivery driver. On his death, Matthew Fleming, one of his former Kent team-mates, wrote: "I am numb with shock and sadness that the brilliant, generous, funny and complex friend who lit up so many cricket grounds, on and off the pitch, has slipped away."

© John Wisden & Co.